For an embarrassingly long time, I thought the Underground Railroad was an actual railroad, at least partly underground. A secret train to freedom is an image than can easily catch a child’s imagination—especially when that child hasn’t been around trains enough to know that they’re noisy and difficult to hide. But the image is potent enough that Colson Whitehead uses it in his new novel about an enslaved woman named Cora who journeys north from Georgia, searching for freedom.
I was, at first, a little skeptical about Whitehead’s idea of making the Underground Railroad literal, rather than telling a story about the real thing. But this story isn’t a realistic one. Cora doesn’t literally journey north in the way an actual fleeing slave would. Instead, she is transported from one land to another, each with its own set of rules and hazards. The railroad is a portal. The novel isn’t about the railroad or even about Cora’s escape. To me, it seems to me about the many forms of enslavement and prejudice African Americans have experienced throughout U.S. history.
The book starts out feeling like a typical slave narrative, upsetting and cruel. Cora lives on a cotton plantation in Georgia and she experiences or witnesses many of the indignities and torments of slave life. Her mother escaped when Cora was a child, leaving her on her own. When a fellow slave, Caesar, suggests escape and tells her he knows someone who can put them on the underground railroad to the north, she agrees to go.
The first stop is South Carolina, where Cora and Caesar find something than looks a lot like freedom. They’re given paid employment and homes and freedom of movement. But the citizens of this seemingly free place are subject to medical tests, similar to the Tuskegee experiments. Later, in another place, Cora witnesses lynchings and genocide, all while hidden in a tiny attic space. Freedom, she learns, is complex:
Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. Here, she was fee of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.
One of the things I like about Whitehead’s approach is that it doesn’t confine American racism to slavery days. Technically, the entirety of the novel is set before Emancipation, but the fantastic railroad makes Cora’s journey feel like time travel, and her pain continues across centuries. I think it’s easy for white Americans to write off racism as something from the past, from “back then,” and to believe that making laws against it makes it disappear.
When Cora is first placed on the train that takes her away from Georgia, she’s told, “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” Of course, all she can see is darkness. The book as a whole is not unremittingly grim, but it does make us see the darkness on the journey through our history.